Why are we obsessed with boat people?

This article first appeared in Crikey (sister publication to the website I write for Property Observer) and behind the pay-wall. I’ve also included some of the comments my story generated underneath.

For all the eight years I have lived in Australia — I am now a permanent resident — I  have never understood the obsession we have with people who arrive by boat and the apparently desperate need for some sort of policy that “stops the boats”.

“Stop the boats” — these three words make me think of an invading horde, not a group of mostly desperate people taking extreme and dangerous (often life-threatening) measures to make a life in Australia.

There’s talk in the so-called expert asylum seeker proposal from Australian defence force chief Angus Houston of a “no advantage” policy for boat people. As if there really is some kind of “advantage” gained by arriving in a derelict craft across choppy seas to be placed in detention for an indefinite length of time with the hope of being granted the right to stay.

The only people who are advantaged are people such as me, who come to Australia with an education, skills, find a job, get a visa and are able to call Australia home and fit into society like the proverbial hand in a glove.

But I have never understood the near hysteria (raised to maximum pitch by the media) of so many people in this country opposed to people who arrive by boat. Governments seem to come and go based on how good they are at deterring boat arrivals just as much as by their ability to manage the economy and keep the unemployment rate down.

“Illegal” boat arrivals are a tiny “problem” that hardly makes a dent in the fabric of our society, except to give us the opportunity to expand our multicultural tapestry.

The recommendations in the asylum seeker report by Houston recommends increasing Australia’s intake to 27,000 within the next five years from current level of just 13,000.

Figures from the Department of Immigration reveal Australia received 168,000 new migrants through its various visa schemes in 2010-11 with 185,000 expected in this financial year. Up until July 9 this year 5459 people made the journey to Australia via boat, last year there were 4565 and in 2010 there 6555. Figures released yesterday by the Australian Bureau of Statistics put the number of humanitarian visas at less then 10,000 for 2009-2010.

So we are talking about less than 10% of all visas being granted on humanitarian grounds and less than 5% all migrants arriving in Australia via boat.

We are a rich country, with jobs for nearly everyone (an unemployment rate the envy of the First World) and a proud history of building out culture on the backs of waves of migrants from all parts of the world. If you visit a suburb such as Footscray in Melbourne, you’ll find east African restaurants, many of which would have been started by refugees, alongside the popular Vietnamese eateries.

Thankfully there are many humanitarians in this country who actually believe in the plight of desperate refugees, not an unrecognisable Labor government (on this issue anyway), who is intent on adopting any policy that may revive its fortunes in the polls, no matter how far its strays from its humanitarian principles.

As I understand it, Labor is in favour of circumventing our pledge on human rights under UN agreements to get the Malaysia people swap deal through — all in the name of politics, votes and power.

People swap — as if we’re trading gold, silver or cotton.

But at least I can understand the politics. I don’t get the core reason we are so obsessed with these desperate people, who make up a tiny proportion of new immigrants to Australia

Perhaps I have not been here long enough. Perhaps I am too much of a lefty. Perhaps I am soft.

People talk about refugees applying through the normal channels and not “jumping the queue”. As if they were standing in line for tickets to the grand final.

But what queue are we talking about? Do those displaced in countless domestic conflicts around the world come to a crossroads with two arrows — one pointing to the left saying “Persecution this way” and the other point to the right saying “Australian humanitarian visa this way”?

Anyone who thinks a refugee is taking the easy way out by jumping on a boat and “jumping the queue” should watch the film In this world by acclaimed British filmmaker Michael Winterbottom about Afghan refugees journey fleeing a Pakistani refugee camp for a better life in London to get a sense of what it really means to be a refugee.

It includes a scene of families couped up in a cargo container, with not enough air so that when the ship arrives at its destination in western Europe, most of the people are already dead.

Surely there is space for the tiny numbers of people who come by boat, without all the political game playing, which has been going on long before I landed on these shores.

Perhaps you can let in fewer of my kind in future and make room for those who don’t really have any choice.

Comments from Crikey readers.


Posted Thursday, 16 August 2012 at 2:05 pm | Permalink

That is silly Larry.You have not read the rules.

Media requires stimulation of tired brain cells.

Media inflicts great pain on anyone who introduces ethical discussion.

media run Australia mostly by courtesy of Rupert murdoch.

Murdoch plays with very nasty persons

Boat people are “Catchy”

Boat people make great pictures especially children.

Boat people sound like terrorists and often look like terrorists {Leaving aside certain Norwegians and Americans who are exceptions to the terrorist rules}

The war against the Axis of Evil has created an opportunity for all the Bigots and Racists to feel free to express their contempt of anyone not like them.


Posted Thursday, 16 August 2012 at 3:27 pm | Permalink

I don’t get why we don’t process these people at our embassy in whatever country they are in and then just fly them here once cleared.

Be a whole lot cheaper than the Naru thing…

  1. ARTY

Posted Thursday, 16 August 2012 at 4:07 pm | Permalink

Larry , you can get a response to your question if you can be satisfied with slogans and abuse.

Otherwise don’t bother waiting.


Posted Thursday, 16 August 2012 at 6:00 pm | Permalink

Larry, the political game playing is because “stop the boats” means 3 completely different things to the 3 different parties with infinite variations in between.

For the Greens and your sense of the phrase – “stop the boats” means denying legitimate refugees the right to claim asylum on Australian soil

For the ALP “stop the boats” means a specific preventative measure to cut down the 500+ death toll from drowning.

For the Coalition “Stop the boats” means stopping refugees from coming by boat.

A pox on all 3 parties I say.

The ALP as the governing party should have negotiated with the Greens after the pattern of boat deaths became obvious instead of trying to wedge the coalition which was futile.

The Greens had a proven opportunity to pass the Malaysian solution with a sunset clause and an increased intake, but they chose to ignore the short term problem of people drowning because for them allowing Malaysia was like Meg Lees voting for the GST; political suicide.

The Coalition chose to oppose the ALP because in good faith they believe the John Howard solution worked, and cynically because they know that every day the issue is in the headlines is a good day for them.

It’s proven almost impossible for me to have a conversation with people about the need to stop people drowning now without being put into an anti-refugee box which I’m not since I support a liberal refugee intake policy. I find the discussions with the left exactly the same as trying the convince the right on the need for action on climate change; it’s like arguing with an immovable object and my motives get questioned. None of which particularly helps refugees who are now stuck with a ‘free range’ Nauru solution with no expiry date and no end in sight.

A pox on all 3 political parties AND their members who can’t differentiate between short term problems and long term solutions.

  1. ARTY

Posted Thursday, 16 August 2012 at 6:51 pm | Permalink

I am with you Merlot.

Even the simpliest conversation is impossible, unless it is a conversation with one’s self. With anyone else it soon descends into the the sickening fog of hatred.

What would Jesus do?



Posted Thursday, 16 August 2012 at 8:11 pm | Permalink

You write a classic piece of left elite prose, that adds nothing. I can dig out a piece written by any luminary last year, the year bfore that or even earlier that puts out all the points you make. So I’m not sure why Crikey put this up for publication, apart from an editorial decision to campaign for the Greens.

The flaw in left elite thinking, as exemplified by you, is that you know better, that you are morally superior and that somehow the Australian public have been duped by some shock jock into being afraid of boat people.

Let me state this very simply so you can understand it. Middle Australia does not want the boats to come. I’ll repeat it so we are clear. They don’t want the boats to come. Your article sheds no light whatsoever on why that is. It rests on an elitiist view that it is some sort of irrational obsession. While the left continues to believe that, I will be assaulted almost daily by shrill, superior, self righteous and smug rants such as yours.

In contrast, both major parties know that adopting the Greens policy of on shore processing and letting anyone who turns up into the country is electoral death. Most people don’t want it.

You have no insight at all about why that is so. Here’s a possible insight. The entire basis of left elite thinking about who are actually on the boats is not what everyone else thinks. Most people think customers of people smugglers are like you. Oh, and like me. I’m an economic migrant too.


Posted Thursday, 16 August 2012 at 9:00 pm | Permalink

The refugees on boats issue is another addition to a long list of reasons why we’d be better off with non-partisan government. See


Posted Friday, 17 August 2012 at 1:15 am | Permalink

I’m from middle Australia. Born here. I have never comprehended the whole “stop the boats” thing either. I did write a letter to the Government for Get Up suggesting that they be re-named “potential tax payers” and welcomed. Also pointed out that anything when applied to a group with “solution” in the title sounds somewhat final.


Posted Friday, 17 August 2012 at 3:18 am | Permalink

David Hand responded:
Let me state this very simply so you can understand it. Middle Australia does not want the boats to come. I’ll repeat it so we are clear. They don’t want the boats to come. 

I am afraid that I am not an economic migrant – can you please define “Middle Australia “, and why you/they/whoever think it is “elitist” to be concerned by the needs of other humans in a much worse situation than themselves?

  1. CML

Posted Friday, 17 August 2012 at 3:23 am | Permalink

Good try Larry, but for once I agree with DH. The majority of
Australians do not want refugees, particularly of the boat variety,
coming willy-nilly to this country. I think its an equity thing, an
orderly process thing, whatever.
Having followed the asylum seeker “problem” for many years, I think
it is more a dislike of fundamentalist religious types, rather than anything
to do with racism. There are known religious groups who do not readily
integrate into western societies – witness what is happening in places
like France – and maybe many people here in Oz do not want to see
the same social problems erupt here.
There is also the so-called economic versus genuine refugee debate,
the security thing and the huge costs involved. Seems strange to me
that there are so few asylum seekers refused entry. Then we pay for it
later with people smugglers gaining entry along with those who
attempt terrorist attacks and those who preach jihad – or something
similar. Its a bit late to undo this kind of damage once these people
have gained citizenship (or permanent residency).
I think we can do all this stuff much better, and more carfully, than just
an open slather approach.


Posted Friday, 17 August 2012 at 8:46 am | Permalink

“Middle Australia” is a loose description of Australian’s who are not rusted on Labor/Green supporters or Liberal/National supporters. They’re the people who reduced Labor to 7 seats in the last election. They are firmly in the coalition camp at the moment, giving Jilia’s government the most dismal polling in living memory. Some of them might shift a bit now as the boat people issue has become bi-partisan with Labor re-embracing much of coalition policy.

Being concerned about the needs of other humans is not elitist. Having a view that the majority of voters are too stupid to make up their own mind about an issue and labeling them as “hysterical” is elitist. The left has made its mind up that middle australia has been duped by shock jocks.

Larry here even believes that Labor has moved simply because of votes and power, missing completely the possibility that the Houston panel, by finding in favour of deterrence, may actually be promoting good policy and Julia has been handed a chance to back down and bow to the will of the people.

Don’t forget that one in twenty people who get on a boat drown. Greens policy perpetuates that outcome.


Posted Friday, 17 August 2012 at 9:06 am | Permalink

Here’s a great example about what gives so many of us the shits. Front page of ttoday’s Australian. An asylum boat puts out a distress call. A container vessel is asked by Australian authorities to rescue them, the passengers are transferred off the “distressed” boat and the Indonesian crew promptly sail off to Indonesia in a boat that is suddenly not “distressed” any more.

We are being had.

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